All posts by Ken Lowery

Ken Lowery is a freelance movie critic, but he seems to be enjoying success in every endeavor except that one. He is the co-creator of @FakeAPStylebook on Twitter, the Web series The Variants (http://www.thevariants.com), and co-founder of The Bureau Chiefs, LLC.

In A World for December, 2010

In A World... for December

DECEMBER 3

Black Swan

Black Swan

DW: It’s a little surprising, but not unwelcome, to see an American writer and director make a film that looks and seems so much like a European thriller. I’m happy with this, as my taste in the genre veers more towards the stylized approach and psychological themes of the European thrillers than the violent and gruesome approach that seems to be dominant in the American approach. Portman has been getting a lot of praise for her role as a repressed ballerina who can’t quite rise to the demands of her role in the lead of a prestigious production, and the implication of a supernatural element to her situation, or simply her belief that there is a supernatural element, is a good thematic approach that I really would like to see handled well. Aronofsky’s work here has drawn a lot of comparisons to Roman Polanski’s work at the height of his career, and when we’re talking things like The Tenant and Repulsion, that’s a pretty high compliment for him to be getting.

KL: I’m real hot or cold on Aronofsky; I tend to find his movies either arresting or tedious in the extreme. At first I was inclined to throw this one in the latter category, until I started seeing the trailers and their hints at deep psychological trauma and surrealism. That puts me squarely on board.

I’ve also spent all this time waiting for Portman to dazzle me the way she did way back with Heat and The Professional and rarely since then. It feels like this might be the role to do it (well, this one and her upcoming role in Your Highness.) Ditto Mila Kunis. I’m frankly pretty excited for it.

Also: $20 says Kunis’s character is Tyler Durden to Natalie Portman’s Jack.


Rare Exports

Rare Exports

DW: Yes, the entire premise, that Santa is actually an evil Scandinavian monster, is a joke, and I’ll even concede that it probably is a pretty tasteless one at that. But, you know, after being inundated year after year after year with sappy, saccharine, cynically exploitative Christmas movies that turn “loving your fellow man” into a commercial enterprise, I’m more than eager to embrace something that gives us the flip side to that. Enough so that I’m willing to overlook the indications that the story is more than a little slight. If, indeed, it is even there at all, beyond the premise of “we found Santa and it turns out he’s evil.”

KL: Frankly this looks pretty hilarious, and I’m all for that. There seems to be a cottage industry in inverting traditional symbols of goodness and light into something else, and within that niche is the Santa Niche; guys, there are five Silent Night, Deadly Night movies.

This seems like this season’s saving grace, the one welcome turd in the punch bowl that is the holiday movie season. Every year has one, and this one is ours; do us proud, Rare Exports.


The Warrior's Way

The Warrior’s Way

DW: It’s still remarkably rare to find a film-maker who understands that one of the most underutilized benefits of the available film-making technology is not to create an exact recreation of the actual world, or to create a fake world that looks as if it could actually be a real world, but to create a world that could only exist within a film. Speed Racer was the last film that really “got” this, and we all know how critical and audience reaction to that went down.

And when I say that I get a definite Speed Racer vibe off of this film, I mean that as a compliment, because what I see here is a beautifully realized world that is, quite explicitly, not the real world and could never be a real world. It’s stylized and surreal but still contains pieces that are recognizable and relatable. Yes, it’s going to be spectacle and eye-candy and if we’re lucky there will be a half-way decent story to go along with it.

KL: Right? These days, I’m finding myself increasingly impatient with the same-old, which is strange, given that I no longer have writing assignments to see as much stuff as possible every month. Now that my movie-going is purely elective, I’m way pickier about how I spend my time and all that money.

Which has generated some strange cinematic bedfellows for me. The Warrior’s Way qualifies: it looks like a bunch of stuff I have not seen before (or at least in awhile), and anyway it’s a hell of a lot different from anything else coming out this month. Sometimes, that’s enough.

DECEMBER 10

The Tourist

The Tourist

KL: I’ll be blunt with everyone and say I’m an Angelina Jolie fan boy going way back – first noticed in Hackers, took serious hold in Playing God and there on afterward. Johnny Depp, too, is a charismatic actor and by all accounts is a genuinely decent person. And who doesn’t love intrigue and deception and the common man lured into action hijinx?

Well, me, for one. On the other hand, The Tourist‘s writer/director is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who gave is the absolutely stunning The Lives of Others. Hope springs eternal for me even as movie after movie disappoints, so I will let this movie’s pedigree convince me in ways the premise could not.

DW: Oh, hey, they remade Gotcha!

Jolie I have no strong feelings for either pro or con, but Depp I’m starting to feel like I’ve just about reached my saturation point with. Even though I personally tend to find him more appealing when he’s doing these quieter, Everyman style roles than the big, deliberately and self-consciously “quirk” ones. So that, coupled with the broad premise being awfully similar to other films, films that I didn’t find myself particularly impressed with either, pretty much leaves me cold on this. If I absolutely must see Johnny Depp running around Europe being chased by angry people, I’ll just go watch The Ninth Gate again.

Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader

KL: Uh, so I thought this franchise was kaput, but I guess not?

And I’m cool with that. I liked the first one OK – who doesn’t love a Tilda Swinton villain? – and I liked the second one even more. The kids are charming and natural and the setting is just different enough from the usual fantasies that I am still occasionally surprised. With fantasy franchises, that’s usually the most you can ask for.

That said, I haven’t read the books, and I think Dorian has. So…

DW: The Narnia books never really impressed me. Even as a kid, I thought Lewis’ brand of Christian allegory was needlessly hectoring, and as an adult I find his fantasy world-building a terribly clichéd mish-mash of tropes borrowed from other, better writers. Of these film adaptation, I watched the first one and thought it was pretty disappointing. It felt like it desperately wanted to have the same kind of exhaustive replication of the source material that the Harry Potter films have, and that copying that success was the only concern for the film-makers. Well, that and rather cynically exploiting Christian audiences with a fantasy film that it’s “safe” to take their children to.

I’m not really seeing anything here to convince me that their goals or ambitions are any different the third time around.

The Tempest

The Tempest

DW: I’m not a fan of Taymor’s work, and the reaction I have to this is one of the reasons why. I love The Tempest; it’s one of my favorites of Shakespeare’s plays. But there’s something curiously pedestrian about taking it and turning it into a big, flashy special effects film. Yes, the material is there to do just that to it, the play is full of magical creatures and impossible situations. But it’s a tiresomely literal take on the material. To take the things that were intended to create an impossible to realize mental picture in the audience and then actually go ahead and film it just feels, oddly, like an indication of a lack of imagination on the part of the film-makers. And then there’s the stuff that just feels off, like turning Prospero into a woman, thereby completely changing the dynamic between Prospero and Miranda that actually drives the play. It’s a peculiar change to make in light of the literalness of the rest of the film.

KL: All I’m going to say is Across the Universe was one of the more offensive movies I’ve seen in a long time, and Taymor has a lot of ground to make up for it. I get angry every time I think about it.

DECEMBER 17

TRON Legacy

TRON: Legacy

KL: So here’s me confessing a shameful thing: I’ve never seen the original TRON, and barring great leaps in the science of extending my attention span at home, I never will. Thus its value to me is pretty slim, and affects my judgment of what I’ve seen of the sequel almost not at all.

Here is my hope: That, as mentioned a bit further down, the filmmakers took this opportunity to make a truly surreal, unique and otherwise bonkers movie to slip into mainstream theaters. There is almost nothing movies can’t show us anymore, and video games have been eroding and evolving what storytelling is and can do for decades. These things put together could make a dynamite movie, or just a completely kick-ass action flick-slash-whatever else it is.

On the other hand: big, safe Disney sequel with blockbuster money behind it. But a man can dream, can’t he?

DW: I want to be interested in this, but I just can’t quite get there. Part of the problem, I think, is that this is a sequel to TRON. That was a great movie for a little kid who loves video-games, but as an adult it’s pretty damn flawed. And as visionary and cutting-edge as it was when it came out, those same designs, even slicked-up with state of the art CGI, now just look hopelessly dated. And not in a cool, retro-future way, but in a “wow, those are definitely some ’80s designs there” way.

So I think I’m going to file the original TRON away as a pleasant memory from my childhood and just go ahead and ignore this new one as much as possible.

How Do You Know

How Do You Know

DW: So, I’ve watched this trailer a couple times now, and I still have really no idea what’s going on or why I’m supposed to care. Yeah, we’ve got Paul Rudd and Reese Witherspoon in your standard meet-cute set-up, and you’ve got some broad comedy with Owen Wilson as the bumbling ex and Jack Nicholson playing straight man to Rudd, but…it just feels like a bunch of tropes and bland characters tossed together in the hopes that we’ll respond to the charisma of the actors and the reassurance that, yet again, we have a “feel-good” romantic comedy-drama for this Christmas season.

To be honest, I feel a little cheated that a film pairing Rudd and Nicholson has such meager ambitions.

KL: I think both of them are losing sight of who they are—it could be said Nicholson lost that a long time ago. A friend of mine said he’d occasionally like to quiz Paul Rudd sometimes to see if he knows what movie he’s filming at the time, because for all his charm, he really is just playing Paul Rudd in everything he’s in. And that’s fine as far as it goes, but it’s a quick and easy way to the implosion of an actor’s credibility.

The trailer’s as forgettable as the apparent premise; what surprises me is that the first place I saw a stand-up for this movie is at the Magnolia Theater, which, here in Dallas, is a pretty upscale kinda-sorta art house theater. The James Brooks angle, I guess, but for every As Good As It Gets there’s a Spanglish.

Let’s go to the IMDB page. “Feeling a bit past her prime at 27…” Oh, fuck you, Hollywood.

DECEMBER 22

True Grit

True Grit

KL: I feel like the Coen Brothers have been honing in on something their whole careers, most often in their dramas but occasionally in their comedies. They’re hacking away at concepts like justice, retribution and sin, though like most of us they ultimately can provide no answers but can only observe. Some people are good, some people are weasels, and mistakes or lapses in judgment can bring about terrible consequences. (Even Burn After Reading, their darkest and most misunderstood comedy, understands this.) Their gift is not in sermonizing but rather in sculpting perfect – and perfectly inscrutable – lessons in human behavior and the consequences thereof.

Early reviews are in on this and they’re very, very good, which is to be expected. Since No Country For Old Men they’ve been on a streak almost unlike any other in their career. On top of that, I just plain love Westerns and think they’re perfect fodder for the Coens’ particular brand of moral spelunking. This is my most anticipated movie of the year.

DW: To be honest, I don’t think I’ve really liked, unreservedly, any Coen Brothers film since Blood Simple. I get what they’re doing with their films, and I can recognize the qualities that lead other people to praise their work, but man, I dunno…I really can’t find any more positive a way to review one of them than “It was okay, I guess.”

This has a cast of actors I like and it looks like a gritty, realistic modern take on the Western. It looks okay, I guess.

Gulliver's Travels

Gulliver’s Travels

KL: I guess what Gulliver’s Travels makes me realize is how special and rare a gift a movie like School of Rock is. It put its (large) child cast on equal footing with the adults and made the melding of adult and kid concerns seem effortless, indeed to the point where those concerns were not separate at all. It’s fun, funny, and even a little – dare I say it? – inspiring.

Then there’s this. There’s some pretty good talent backing up Jack Black there – Jason Segel, Emily Blunt and Billy Connolly are always welcome names. But screenwriters Joe Stillman and Nicholas Stoller have mostly done pretty bland film work (Yes Man, Planet 51), and director Rob Letterman’s credits are a handful of uninspiring CGI also-rans. So will this be more than Jack Black being Jack Black at some CGI? Probably not.

DW: See, a film in which Jack Black plagiarizes someone else’s work and gets a prestigious job as a writer? I’d be interested in that. That’s got potential. Jack Black doing his usual shtick in this holiday’s fart-and-poop joke movie for kids? Yeah, not so much.

And there is a lot of talent in this film. I recognized a half-dozen folks from the British comedy scene here whose work I really do like. But they’re all reduced to bit-players in the same film Black has made a few times already.

In a World for November, 2010

In A World... for November

November! The leaves are turning, the air is chilling, and the last of the Halloween cash-in movies are wrapping up their time in our movie theaters and we’re making way for one of the two most profitable movie-going days of the year: Thanksgiving. Here we have a grab bag of stuff the studios hold in good esteem: high-profile comedies, sci-fi epics, high-octane action flicks, the beginning of the end of a major franchise, and a new Disney princess film.

Bureau Chiefs Ken Lowery and Dorian Wright take a look at what the month of November has in store for us all.

NOV. 5

Due Date

Due Date

KL: I liked The Hangover a great deal, which I realize is not a very controversial thing to say. But it’s superior comedic filmmaking, and I do; the jokes remain funny, the actors are perfectly cast, their charisma and chemistry mixes well and they all get a chance to shine.

A two-man road comedy may be harder to pull off than a three-man show, however. You’ve got Zach Galifianakis doing his man-child thing and Robert Downey Jr. playing the straight man, and also a cute dog, so you have a lot going for you. Todd Phillips is also one of those rare comedic directors who can make a good-looking movie, so there’s that, too. Barring some lethal reviews, this is close to a sure thing as the month offers for me.

DW: I’m still waiting to be convinced that Galifianakis is funny. If I squint a bit I can sort of see it, but for the most part he just really hasn’t “clicked” for me, either as a comedian or as an actor. And so ninety minutes or so of him in a lead role gives me some slight pause. Still, as far as comedies go, this month’s selection feels pretty thin, and there are some moments in the trailers that are genuinely funny, so this has pretty strong potential to be good. Plus, as you say, it does look very nice, and Downey Jr. is almost always worthwhile, in addition to being pretty under-rated as a comedic actor himself.

NOV. 12

Skyline

Skyline

DW: I’d heard a lot of good, excited buzz for this, but I’m not sure why, exactly, now that I’ve seen the same trailer everyone else had. There’s one unique, fairly exciting visual here, which is a sky full of people being lifted into an alien ship, but everything else feels very familiar. We’ve got the large, barely glimpsed monsters wreaking havoc on the city from Cloverfield and we’ve got the dog-fights between jets and aliens from Independence Day, the “lights through the doors” from Close Encounters, and I suspect that if I dug a little deeper I’d probably see plenty more shots that recall other alien or monster movies. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; good films can be made from synthesizing earlier films. But I’m just not seeing what it is about this one that I’m supposed to be so excited about when I’ve seen so many of its constituent parts before. And, frankly, didn’t much care for them then.

KL: From what I understand this is more a showcase for special effects that a movie was then built around. I don’t say that as a swipe; that is basically what is going on here. The “Brothers Strause,” whose only previous feature-length credit is Aliens vs. Predators – Requiem, are primarily known for designing visual effects for rather striking work… and also, sometimes, some very pedestrian work as well (lookin’ at you, Jonah Hex). As a spectacle I’m sure it’s fine, but for this kind of subject matter I’d rather see Monsters.


Unstoppable

Unstoppable

KL: So this looks bananas.

There’s no way to talk about this without talking about Tony Scott. The man HAS put away some classic movies in his time, and my brother to this day makes the argument that Scott is deconstructing and reordering the action movie in a way no one else would try – which is true, but is not on its own a measure of quality.

I did like Déjà Vu, actually, but the rest of his latter movies are kind of a hot mess. I did not see The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, because really who has the time, so maybe he’s toned it down a bit? But no. Not even the presence of Rosario Dawson will get me in for this one.

DW: So, Speed on a train? Did they do that one yet?

I want to say that at least it looks different from your usual action movie, and the lack of any real identifiable villain is a nice move forward for the genre. But it also looks like we’ve got a cartoonishly evil corporation trying to stop our heroes from doing the right thing, which is a bit overdone. And, honestly, adorable little kids are going to be killed by the runaway poison train? Was a bus full of puppies and kittens stuck on the track vetoed for being a little too on the nose? I’m not shocked by blatant emotional manipulation in lesser Hollywood films, but this is a little too blatant.

NOV. 19

The Next Three Days

The Next Three Days

DW: I’m finding big, high-concept thrillers and action movies a bit of a chore these days, but I still find myself pretty interested in this one. I still like heist movies, and prison breaks are basically just heists on a really big scale. That there’s a strong emotional component to this one helps; that notion of risking everything to save your family from an unjust fate is pretty powerful. So, take that, and add a really excellent looking cast, and you’ve got something that looks to be promising. Even if I think I still need a little more story to be totally sold and not more action set-pieces.

KL: Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks I like; Paul Haggis not so much. Then again, Paul Haggis the interminable bore (the one who wrote-directed In the Valley of Elah) appears to be a different beast from Paul Haggis who wrote Casino Royale and (to a lesser degree) Quantum of Solace. His blue tones are in full force here, but I suppose I can cope with that. If he can give me Royale-like thrills with actors I like this much, this’ll be a good time.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1

KL: Appropriate that the art on that link is the kids running through a forest, isn’t it? Because though I’m a big fan of the series, the first 3,000 pages (approximately) of the last book were a textbook example of why Rowling is a better idea person than a prose person. That “hiding in the forest” series of chapters darn near killed the book for me.

But I pressed on and, hey, look, I’m a Harry Potter fan. I love the books, I like the movies, I wish they’d kept Alfonso Cuarón on as director but there’s no way I’m not going to see this through to the end. I did not particularly enjoy Half-Blood Prince, what with the adaptation deciding to take out several key points of that book’s conflicts and revelations, but what am I going to do? I’m in the fan tractor beam. I just hope they finish with a bang.

DW: I find myself in a remarkably different position. I enjoyed the books, but once I finished the final one, I was pretty much done with Harry Potter and his world. Not out of disgust or the disgruntled fan whine that “Rowling got it wrong.” But because it was a satisfactory conclusion to the whole endeavor. Which meant that I had no more desire at all to see any more Harry Potter films.

And that is pretty much where I find myself still. Visually, I’m not too excited because of the overuse of dark blues and blacks, which tells me that, in theaters, this is just going to be a loud, murky mess. And I’m more curious about how Watson and Radcliffe are going to follow this up, career-wise, than see how they wrap this up. I just can’t muster any excitement or enthusiasm at all.

I’ll wait for the Lego video game version of the story. That’ll keep me satisfied.

NOV. 24

Burlesque

Burlesque

DW: For a genre that people keep trying to call dead and gone, it sure seems like we get a big, loud, eyeball-searingly bright musical every couple years. I’m sure this will do fine. It’s the sort of spectacle movie that tends to do well with audiences that are underserved during the blockbuster season. I’ve got no real interest in bright young things, though, or their romantic travails or hopes for stardom. If I do suddenly feel the urge to watch something like that, though, I’ve got plenty of other options. I am struck, though, by how…straight…this feels in the marketing, given how much it looks like they’re trying to lure a gay audience in. “Look, boys, Cher! You like her, right! She’s some sort of, whatchacallit, diva, or something? Please give us money.”

KL: Man, the studios have non-competitive, hit-all-demographics Thanksgiving programming down to a science, don’t they? Look at the four movies we’re highlighting for this day: a big brassy musical, a romantic comedy with a male lead, an adrenaline-fueled action festival and a Disney princess movie. Of these, Burlesque is most like the type my family chooses to go see en masse on Thanksgiving Night.

And, really, that’s all I got for you: this is programming.


Love and Other Drugs

Love and Other Drugs

DW: I’m apparently willing to concede a lot to engaging leads and likeable casts, because honestly, that’s really all this film looks like it has going for it. It’s not an original story, by any stretch, the cad who discovers that the love of a good woman makes him a better person. And, thankfully, the trailer pretty much spells out every major plot point from the film, from the obligatory meet-cute on to the crisis that nearly drives them apart and their eventual reconciliation at the eleventh hour. But Jake Gyllenhaal does really well with the roles that require comedy and smoldering, and he has exceptionally good chemistry with Anne Hathaway, so I’m prepared to forgive the triteness and lack of originality in the actual story realm.

KL: I like both the leads a lot: Gyllenhaal’s got an easy charm that masks a surprising range, and much the same could be said for Anne Hathaway. (Just look at them in Brokeback Mountain; they were both amazing.) But it is, you know, a romantic comedy; at least in this one it’s the guy that’s the Type A busybody social climber who needs to chillax a little bit. Probably won’t see it, have nothing against it.


Faster

Faster

KL: There was a time—oh crap, that was seven years ago—when I thought Dwayne Johnson might be the next big action star. He can obviously do the action, he’s smart, he’s charismatic, and he made The Rundown twice as much fun as it should have been. But it never seemed to happen for him, and he ended up diving into the kid-friendly stuff way faster than his muscle-bound predecessors.

This is more like the kind of stuff I want him to do. OK, so I can take or leave the “he’s just SO BADASS” super-serious stuff, actually prefer him when he’s allowed to be a bit goofier, but at least they’re using his physical presence here. Am I thinking a November release is a vote of confidence? I don’t know. Maybe not. Could be they’re just throwing the dudes a bone in the Thanksgiving line-up.

DW: This might actually be fun, in an over-the-top, done to excess sort of way. Johnson has charisma, absolutely, and there’s a lot of supporting cast here that’s noteworthy as well. That usually works to pull off a plot that doesn’t quite hang together. Because, frankly, it looks like this plot isn’t quite as fully developed as it might have been. Is this a revenge movie, where brutal justice is being meted out to wrong-doers? Or is it a face-off between two badasses? The film probably should have made up its mind before putting both threads into the trailer.

Tangled

Tangled

DW: I usually want to like Disney movies, but I’m feeling torn on this. On the one hand, it’s very pretty. On the other, it feels like some sort of bait-and-switch is being pulled. It’s a story about Rapunzel, but why is a rather unlikeable male character being presented to me as the lead? Why are all the bits that seem to be suggesting that this is her story being punctuated with him acting like a jackass? I’ve heard that Disney is trying to fight the perception that they just make “princess movies.” But if I want to see an animated comedy with an unappealing lead and no jokes that are actually funny, I’ll go and see something by Dreamworks or Sony.

KL: I suppose the basic idea for a romantic comedy—regardless of age group—is that one person must have it “together” while the other must eventually figure out that the other one, well, has it together.

And I was about to say “reversing the roles must be a sign of progress,” but come to think of it, that’s how it’s been for a long time now: Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Lion King… rehab for guys, realization of dreams for the girls. Suddenly, I’m less enthused.

In a World for October, 2010

In A World... for October

October’s here, which means the trailers for the winter’s Oscar bait are making their premieres and cheapie scary movies are released upon the teenaged public — complete with a new Saw installment. September was mostly a pretty grim month for movies, but October promises something a bit better: A wider mix of good talent and subject matter, from high brow to low.

OCTOBER 1

Let Me In

Let Me In

DW: At the best of times, I’m pretty skeptical of both vampire films and of remakes of horror films. The pedigree for this story of a boy who forms a relationship with a childlike vampire girl is pretty strong; the original novel has been acclaimed and the original film version as well. And the look here is pretty striking, with all those pale, snow-covered, bleak landscapes standing as glaringly obvious symbols for the main story.

I’m almost tempted to give it a shot, if only for the sake of curiosity alone. After all, it has been long enough that we’re about due for at least a decent English-language vampire movie, right?

But then “from the director of Cloverfield” flashes across the screen and I’m suddenly even more skeptical than I was before.

KL: I have seen Let the Right One In, the Swedish film this one remakes, and can attest that it is as good as people say it is. What I see in this trailer confirms what I heard from trusted critics coming out of the Toronto International Film Festival: this is most certainly a remake, pretty loyal to the original, only this time it’s in English.

As with Gus Van Sant’s near-literal remake of Psycho, one must ask the question: What’s the point? Same characters, same color tone, same dead-silent winter landscape… I enjoy Richard Jenkins as much as the next man, but I think I’ll pass.

The Social Network

The Social Network

KL: If the movie had instead just been the minute or so of Facebook hallmarks set to that marvelous cover of “Creep,” I’d be fine. But no, there is a feature film, and boy do I have mixed feelings about it.

On the one hand, David Fincher (yay!). On the other, Aaron Sorkin, who going by the trailer is at his Aaron Sorkiniest (boo). On the one hand, David damn Fincher, who did Zodiac! On the other hand, his last movie was Benjamin Button. On the one hand, Jesse Eisenberg, who I quite like. On the other, Justin Timberlake. And on and on.

I also share some sympathies with the camp saying it’s “too soon” to do a movie about Facebook. I agree, and partly don’t understand why one is being made at all. I suspect I may need to be of another, older generation to truly understand how revolutionary social media is to the social landscape. It could be I just lack the proper perspective.

But I am who I am, and I’m of the “digital native” generation. I fully expect we’ll next see Francis Ford Coppola do a movie about the inventers of Words with Friends.

DW: Yeah, I want to be interested in the film, because apart from Sorkin, who has always left me cold, that’s a pretty impressive list of names associated with this film. But, a movie about the people who made Facebook? Really? I can sort of see the logic behind it. It’s the kind of success story with behind the scenes drama that Hollywood loves, and the “true story” nature of it always gives a movie a little extra push when it comes to award seasons. But Facebook? Okay. I guess I have to throw myself into the “too soon” camp. I just can’t shake the suspicion that, fifteen years from now, people will look back and remember that people once made a movie about that friend-stalking service that people used to use before moving on to newer, better social experiences on the web.

OCTOBER 8

I Spit On Your Grave

I Spit On Your Grave

DW: Unless you’re a real fan of ’70s grindhouse gore films, you probably only know of the original I Spit On Your Grave either for the controversy it created at the time, with feminist critics accusing the film of misogynistically glorifying rape, or the reappraisal it received from later feminist critics who saw it as an early example of the “woman takes vengeance on her rapists” film that would go on to become a staple of “television for women” channels. (There was also the re-reappraisal by critics who noted that while everyone was arguing about whether or not the film was sexist, as a distaff Deliverance, the rather unpleasant things it was saying about poor people were being overlooked.) In any case, it is one of those films that is more entertaining to read about than to try and actually watch.

So I can actually see the logic behind remaking it. People know the name, most haven’t seen it, and the original is just a little too dated to really work with a contemporary audience. Unfortunately, the aesthetic of horror has come around again to the point where the torture-porn genre is so ascendant that people are mistaking gore and brutality for “scary” and taking the film and making it just another torture-porn film, only with a woman doing the killing this time, just gives the entire enterprise an air of tediousness.

KL: About the only thing the original I Spit On Your Grave had going for it was the title. Because come on: that is a badass title.

But as you say, Dorian, it looks a hell of a lot like a modern-day torture porn thing, except this time the torturer is the protagonist and we’re given a reason to cheer monstrous behavior. That thread in a lot of movies has always bothered me: that need to have an excuse for righteous fury right up front so characters—and, vicariously, the audience—can indulge in the worst behavior imaginable. Yuck.

I don’t know who that’s meant to be fun for. Maybe teenagers, looking for the emotional rollercoaster of “real life”; lord knows I pursued movies like this as a kind of tourist back in those days. But I’m not a teenager anymore.

My Soul to Take

My Soul to Take

KL: Well, no one can accuse Wes Craven of not knowing what his interests are, huh?

I kid. One thing I like about a lot of Craven’s better movies is how they examine the concept of “sins of the father”—in broader terms, how old sins and wrongdoings tend to linger on well after they’re apparently put to bed, and how growing into adulthood often means dealing with the complete fucking wreck your parents’ generation made of the world. It’s a common thread in many horror and crime films, and one I can get behind. I enjoy a genuine mystery along with my scares.

And just when I think it’s safe to count Craven out, he surprises me. New Nightmare is, looking back, pretty well flawed, but it was still a brilliant stab back into relevance, and a clear attempt to try something new. As many misgivings as I have with the Scream series, you can’t say it didn’t give new life to the slasher film. And Red Eye is, I think, still one of his most underappreciated thrillers.

I’ll be interested to see how this one does.

DW: I like Craven when he’s doing something different from what he’s done before, or what anyone else is doing in horror at the moment. Nightmare on Elm Street was interesting because it had that surreal, fantasy edge that the standard slasher films of the times lacked. Scream was different because it was self-aware. This looks to be treading a lot of the same ground as the Nightmare series and I’ve already seen Craven do that. Like you, I’m a little interested to see how it does, because even a retread from Craven promises to be more original than the bulk of the horror films we get these days, but I’m not sure if the audience wants that, or yet another Saw movie. But I’m not terribly curious about the final product or the fate of these characters. Especially when you factor in the 3D gimmick and a terrible nu-metal song in the trailer.

Stone

Stone

KL: I’ve spoken to a critic or two who’ve already seen this and they tell me it’s about as good as the premise and cast indicate.

I tend to hear two things about Ed Norton: he is a great chameleon of an actor who never chooses a dull project, or he just walks through everything as Ed Norton and how interesting can that be, anyway? I tend to lean toward the former, but that’s likely because I consider The 25th Hour to be one of the very best movies of the last 20 years. De Niro’s presence is sort of a non-factor in determining the worth of movie these days, as is Jovovich. But the Movie Math is good. Them plus Norton plus premise equals Ken is going.

DW: It’s a very good cast, and the moral complexity of the situation it presents is intriguing. In normal circumstances that would be enough to get my attention, but there’s just something off-putting to me about the elements on display here. There’s a lot going on, and there doesn’t appear to be a real lead character for an audience to focus on. The characters all appear to be self-sabotaging to certain degrees, and while that can make for a good tragedy, there are limits to my patience with it.

Tamara Drewe

Tamara Drewe

DW: It looks like there’s a little more wit to this than most entries in the “girl returns to small town she grew up in to cause upheaval in the lives of the residents” genre. That’s not really saying much, to be honest, but quality level does look to be above the usual baseline. I have a suspicion that the we’re in for a bit of over-praising from the critics, both for the cachet of the film being British, when most of the genre is dominated by American films with the “it girl” of the moment, and the novelty of the source material being a comic book instead of the more usual light novel, of the sort that dominates book racks in airport news-stands.

The only major knock I can see coming is that, for the most part, none of the characters featured in the trailer seem particularly likeable. Not the philandering authors, not the jealous local boy-toy, and not the object of everyone’s affection herself. Tamara Drewe is just a cipher in the trailer, though a well-sexed one. That’s not really enough to get me to care about why she’s returned home.

KL: Oh, good. A story about writers.


OCTOBER 15

Red

Red

KL: The similarities between this movie and the graphic novel created by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner probably begin and end with character names and very, very basic premise (retired government hit man pursued by government). And that’s OK; the OGN was like Ellis doing a Garth Ennis plot, and aside from some neat dialogue, a few good action sequences and doing me the admittedly huge solid of introducing me to Hamner’s art, I can take it or leave it.

I way prefer the absurdity on display here. Red the comic is grim and preachy, whereas Red the movie looks fun and absurd. “Let’s let Helen Mirren shoot some bloody huge guns” is basically stunt casting, but I find myself not caring.

DW: I have absolutely no recollection of the comics other than that Cully Hamner’s art was nice. That’s really not a strong testament to the story. It’s probably fitting that we get this and Expendables so close together. The themes appear to be strikingly similar, with aging badasses called together once more to prove that they are badasses. This one looks to have more of a smirky tone, which may or may not help it find an audience. But once more, I’m finding myself just a bit put off by it. Yes, there are actors I like in this, and yes, I prefer my action films not to take themselves too seriously. But this just looks too slick, too effects heavy, and too much of the cast just playing themselves.

It might just be possible that the Crank films have ruined me for big, Hollywood-style action films.

OCTOBER 22

Hereafter

Hereafter

KL: Clint Eastwood, boy, I just don’t know.

I was into Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby as much as the next guy, but I’ve never had any desire to see them ever again. I did not see Flags of Our Fathers, found myself troubled by Letters from Iwo Jima, actively disliked Changeling, ignored Gran Torino and found Invictus to be astoundingly pedestrian. This is not a good trend, and I’m starting to agree with the growing chorus of critics meeting each new Eastwood offering with eye-rolls and, sometimes, outright hostility.

The story out of Toronto is no different: some slathered Hereafter with praise and others actively hated it. So there’s that, and the fact that what I’ve seen of screenwriter Peter Morgan’s work (The Last King of Scotland, The Other Boleyn Girl, Frost/Nixon) has repeatedly disappointed me.

So no. No thanks.

DW: I went from being a little bored with the premise of the reluctant psychic to outright angry with the use of the tsunami to add real-life gravitas. So, no thanks for me too.

OCTOBER 29

Monsters

Monsters

DW: I’m willing to bet that we’re going to see a lot of comparisons between this film and District 9. They both have that same theme of humans dealing with aliens in their midst and the transformations society has to undergo because of that. But this looks more my speed, to be honest. At its heart, it’s a giant monster movie, and there’s something really compelling about the way they’ve shot this. Usually the trick of keeping the monsters mostly out of the frame just screams of an attempt to save on the effects budget, but in the glimpses we get in the trailer, it looks like care was taken to integrate the creatures into the environment. I also really respond to the fact that the creatures aren’t just scary, that there’s something fascinating and beautiful about them. It feels like a more honest portrayal, that acknowledgement that humans aren’t just terrified of the “other” but attracted to it as well.

KL: It’s a movie about an alien ecosystem growing in Mexico that the American and Mexican military can’t keep under control! We are totes subtle up in here, people.

OK, flippancy aside, I tend to agree with you: this looks like way more my thing than District 9, and here’s hoping it doesn’t follow D9’s sin of just turning on FPS auto-pilot in its last act. I’m way more interested in the realities of engaging, running from, marveling at and shrinking back in horror from an encounter with the truly alien; strapping on the guns and going macho works if the movie’s Predator, but most movies aren’t Predator and shouldn’t try to be.

I’m also glad that sci-fi monster movies like this are still being made by people without a ton of money. Huge sweeping blockbuster epics wearing the trappings of genre pictures do not interest me (I never saw Avatar, and likely never will); to me, these things belong in the hands of people who really, really want to make that movie, major studio backing be damned.

In a World for September, 2010

In A World... for September

And now we tread headlong into the limbo between summer blockbuster season and Oscar season (with a quick stop over in Horror Town in late October). What do September’s offerings have in common? Not a whole lot: there’s some serious highbrow stuff alongside lower-end fare, horror films and biopics and even a bit of Mexploitation.

No, the only thing September’s releases have in common are maddeningly non-specific titles that make it hard to quickly search for relevant images on Google.

SEPTEMBER 1

The American
"Just bask in me."

The American

KL: George Clooney remains one of the true “stars” left in Hollywood, and sure enough I’ll see just about anything he’s headlining. Pedigree is what The American has going for it: Clooney and screenwriter Rowan Joffe, who wrote me-favorite 28 Weeks Later.

On paper, the whole thing looks kind of pedestrian: American hitman abroad, one last job, tempting fate by seeking a normal life, love interest, and so on. We’ve seen all that before, but in these kinds of stories it’s all in the execution, because we’ve seen all its component pieces before. I’ll be there.

DW: The thing that strikes me is that, yes, we have seen pretty much all of these elements before, often in pretty much this exact same configuration, and yet watching the trailers, very little of the story is sketched out. The film is pushing the mystery and the moral ambiguity of the situation, and the appeal of Clooney in these roles as a “thoughtful” action hero type. It’s a good approach to take, but it comes just shy of really selling me on the picture. Which is frustrating, because the style of it, and the presence of Clooney, makes me want to look forward to the film, but I find myself sitting there and thinking “and?” throughout the trailer.

SEPTEMBER 3

Machete
Order now and get this handy carrying coat and vest combo.

Machete

DW: It’s like the Mexsploitation fever-dreams of my youth brought to life.

Robert Rodriguez does stripped-down action movies very well. He usually strikes the right balance of spectacle and over-the-top ridiculousness that serves the genre well. And that looks like what we have here: a bunch of actors and actresses we like, doing insanely improbably badass things in service to a rather typical for an action film revenge story. It’s a loud, dumb action movie, but with enough variation on the standard tropes, and just barely enough variation at that, to pass successfully as an original composition.

KL: I run real hot or real cold on Rodriguez movies. From Dusk till Dawn is hands-down one of the most entertaining movies I have ever seen; it was Grindhouse ten years before Grindhouse, and way, way better. But the rest of his stuff seems less like movies and more like feature-length trailers: a bunch of stuff happens and some passably witty dialogue is spoken, but ultimately it’s the cinematic equivalent of eating Chinese food.

I have actually seen the movie, and I was not a big fan. Liking this movie will depend on how much you like the general structure of Once Upon a Time in Mexico with the kind of gore in the aforementioned Dawn. Ultimate it’s just not enough for me to laugh at throwbackism.


SEPTEMBER 10

Resident Evil Afterlife
Is this still even from the right RE movie? You tell me!

Resident Evil: Afterlife

KL: The reason this franchise keeps going is the reason the Saw franchise keeps going: they make money. This seems like an odd duck to keep coming back to life (zombie jokes lol), but hey, at least it consistently casts women in its lead roles.

I admit: I liked the first movie, cheesy as it could be. This was before the current glut of zombie movies, when making such a thing in modern times was still novel. It also gave us a lot of gore and some corny action, and hey, ain’t nothing wrong with that. The second one was an incoherent mess, and the third had some nifty sequences but didn’t live up to the premise promised us in the trailers. This one… I don’t even know anymore. Does the mythology matter? Are there hardcore fans out there who know every twist and turn of the movie franchise?

I suspect not. Maybe this franchise more closely resembles the Bond movies than other, more direct sequels.

DW: I only ever bothered to see the first film in the series, and I thought it was about as good as you could probably expect a movie based on a video game to be. I can see the appeal; there are big action set-pieces all over the place, gore for fans of that, and women in the lead. But I watch this trailer and I just feel lost. All the big reveals of monsters and characters feels like I’m expected to know who they are and why they’re significant, and I don’t, and what’s more, I don’t even know if I am supposed to recognize them or if I’m just supposed to be impressed with how scary or menacing they look. It’s like watching an undubbed foreign film without subtitles. Only with zombies.

SEPTEMBER 17

Devil
He who made the rhyme...

Devil

DW: Everyone on the Internet seems to have had their good laugh at the anecdotal stories of audiences reacting negatively to M. Night Shyamalan’s name appearing in the credits. I would hope that, after the last couple of years, we’d all have learned some important lessons about mistaking how the Internet reacts to a film to how the general public will react. And while I personally tend to think that Shyamalan’s best work is behind him, actually stepping back and let someone else direct the story might be the sort of thing his career needs.

The part that bothers me more than the “story by” credit is that “The Night Chronicles” line in the movie’s homepage address. I don’t want a series of horror films released under an umbrella title. Horror as a genre is already plagued by an overabundance of remakes and sequels. A “ready made” franchise just seems like a terrible idea.

The plot doesn’t do much for me either, to tell the truth. Why would Satan need to scare a bunch of people on an elevator? Is Hell micromanaged that badly?

KL: The basic concept of the trailer looks like it might make a pretty good 30-minute episode of something – I suppose Tales From the Crypt. As high concepts go, “bunch of people stuck in an elevator no one can get to, one of them might be a demon” isn’t bad, but it isn’t feature-film material.

I’m automatically turned off by any movie that seems to hinge on one crucial reveal. Take Cloverfield, for instance: the heat building up for that one seemed immense, but so much of it was based around “what’s the monster look like?” And once people knew, man, no one cared anymore. Unless there’s some exceptional character work done here, I don’t know if anyone will care “who the bad person is” past the first leaked online spoilers. A gimmick does not a story make.


The Town
"Bask, also, in me."

The Town

KL: Gone Baby Gone was, like, the best movie I saw the year it came out. Walking out, I asked the question probably a lot of other people did: holy shit, why doesn’t Ben Affleck direct more movies? Great cast, great mystery, great suspense, and an absolutely crushing moral dilemma. I can’t ask for more in my crime dramas.

OR CAN I? Affleck directing, starring and co-writing, with Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall, Chris Cooper, Jon Hamm… the trailer unfolds and the hits just keep on coming. Affleck’s got a lot to live up to with his sophomore effort, but I think he’s equal to the task.

DW: Affleck’s previous effort as a director was a smart crime thriller that was so much better than a film by the star of Mallrats had any right to be. I’m not as enthusiastic about this one, but that’s not because this doesn’t look good. It looks extremely promising with an absolutely stellar cast. It’s that so much of the drama of the film looks to be based on the relationship Affleck’s character has with the female characters. The moment in the trailer that looks like it’s supposed to be a shocking reveal felt, frankly, a bit obvious, though that may be more due to me watching and reading far more mysteries and thrillers than I probably should. That is holding me back a little, as is the thought of Affleck injecting that love-sick puppy-dog affectation he takes on in romantic roles into what otherwise looks like an engaging crime drama.

Easy A
See because it's like the Scarlet Letter.

Easy A

KL: Easy A doesn’t have much going on behind the camera, far as I can tell—director Will Gluck only has Fired Up on his resumé and writer Bert Royal has written one episode of one show I have not heard of. The people in front of the camera have more going on. I like Emma Stone a lot, and the minor characters are filled out by a reliable crew: Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson and Lisa Kudrow, among others.

But that’s not enough; in the mental calculus that goes into my “will I or won’t I” formulas for movies, none of that stuff put together adds up to a passing grade. The premise? I suppose it has some potential for turning conventions about teenage-girl sexuality on its ear, but, again: Fired Up.

DW: Let me get my one moment of politically-correct gay umbrage out of the way first: in 2010, the whole notion of encouraging a gay teenager to pretend to have sex with a girl for the sake of popularity is offensively retrograde, not to mention more than a little stupid.

Apart from that, I find myself rather liking the premise. With so many teenagers forced to endure abstinence-only sex education programs, I like the idea of a mainstream teen comedy that pricks the egos of religious hypocrites in the schoolyard. Add an appealing cast to that premise, and I think you have something that actually sounds fairly promising.

SEPTEMBER 24

Buried
There are just a lot of handsome dudes in movies this month!

Buried

DW: I like Ryan Reynolds a lot, and I think with the right material he can be a really fantastic presence in a film. But I can’t seem to muster any enthusiasm for him in a box talking to people on a cell phone for an hour and half, no matter how taut and suspenseful the experience is supposed to be. It’s largely the same problem I had with the recent return of the “man vs. nature” horror films like Open Water and Frozen. I’m willing to take your word for it if you tell me that they’re good, but I just don’t have any interest in watching people slowly die as a form of entertainment. Buried appears to be aiming for something more in the classic thriller mold in its approach than those other films, but it still strikes me as in the same general vein.

KL: Geez, I feel like I could copy-and-paste my feelings about Devil and call it a day. Good high concept that’d be much more potent in shorter form, central mystery to crack…

The difference is that I also like Ryan Reynolds quite a bit and have more faith in his charisma to carry this kind of concept. That said, I’ve been to my share of film festivals and seen my share of low-budget horror movies whose premise (and budget) demanded extreme claustrophobia with one or a handful of actors, and the exercise is, nine times out of ten, more exhausting than suspenseful.

I just checked out the writer’s IMDB page. You know he’s got another script in pre-production right now? Here’s the summary: “On a late night visit to an ATM, three coworkers end up in a desperate fight for their lives when they become trapped by an unknown man.”

It’s called ATM. Sounds like he’s found his niche!


Howl
"I saw the best minds of my generation deployed by sadness.. no, no..."

Howl

DW: James Franco has turned into a very interesting actor in the last few years, and even in these brief glimpses of the film on display here he really seems to inhabit the role of Allen Ginsberg in an engaging and believable way. I’ve never had much patience for the “Beat” writers, so I don’t find myself too interested in learning more about Ginsberg’s life. Sure, more mainstream, Oscar-baiting biopics about gay and lesbian historical figures are probably, on the whole, a good thing, but I find the story about the obscenity trial more interesting. Both as an excellent reminder of what an era that is viewed with too much nostalgia was actually like for anyone who wasn’t a straight, conservative, white Christian man, and as a useful parallel to contemporary political and cultural controversies.

KL: I care even less about “Beat” writers than you, Dorian, but there seems to be a lot to recommend this.

There’s the cast. There’s the striking visual style on display, showing that once again, some filmmaker somewhere remembered that you can do anything you want with this medium, and that literalism is a prison, not a duty. And also there’s the obscenity trial, which by itself is a fascinating cultural artifact: the notion that there was a time that poetry could be so powerful and so threatening as to warrant such a thing.


Wall Street
From the deleted make-out scene.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

KL: I do and do not understand the desire to create this movie.

On the one hand, yeah, Gordon Gekko would flip the fuck out in these heady times, when high-finance criminals rake in millions, tax payers shoulder the cost and no one seems to give much of a damn. Our country’s an oligarchy in everything but name.

On the other hand, yeesh. The trailer does the movie no favors by sketching out what must be 80% of its narrative and emotional arcs, leaving you with questions about the characters that are so obvious they may as well be rhetorical. I don’t really get off on watching people live the high life, so there’s precious little to offer me here. If Michael Douglas brings his sizzle, that’s something. But then I could just pop in the old Wall Street, couldn’t I?

DW: More so than most sequels, I find myself wondering what the point of this is. Yeah, the culture of greed that made Wall Street such a commentary on its times had its resurgence, and screwed over most Americans in the process, but even then a sequel feels about a year too late to have any impact. And, as you say, this looks so much like the original, if you really wanted to know what Oliver Stone thinks about the Gordon Gekko’s of the world, the original is right there already. Why would you need a retread?

You Again
Betty White did something inappropriate! Take a shot!

You Again

KL: It’s gotta be tough out there for a mainstream actress. You don’t get to do action unless you’re Angelina Jolie, so the only leading roles you’re left with are period pieces or romantic comedies. Witness poor Kristen Bell, who has proven time and again she is really damn funny, headlining a movie that seems powered by how many groans-per-second it can generate.

Oh well. At least it’s not a romantic comedy.

DW: I think I’m slightly more generous than you in my reaction, because the film has so many actors whose work I really enjoy, and the situation is one that’s very relatable for just about everyone. And the fact that it isn’t a romantic comedy actually does give it some added appeal. I could really use a break from the bro-comedies dominating the discussion of what is and isn’t popular in theaters, so I hope that a good, women-orientated comedy can find some traction and an audience.

On The Bureau Chiefs’ Nightstand: August 4 2010

The Bureau Chiefs' Nightstand

After a long day at work, the Bureau Chiefs like to relax in bed with books and comic books. Since there are 16 of us, our bed is 64 feet wide and our nightstand is the size of a small elephant. Here’s what is stacked up next to it.

Ken

After a long spell of reading only comics, the wife and I took a trip to nearby bookstore Legacy Books. I’m embarrassed to say I did not know this enormous independent bookstore existed, despite the fact it was about 15 minutes away by car.

I picked up a couple books: My Custom Van, a collection of comedic essays by Michael Ian Black, and The Brief History of the Dead, by Kevin Brockmeier.

My Custom VanI tore into My Custom Van first because I needed exactly what Sarah Silverman’s blurb described: something “fun to read while you’re pooping.” And it is. If you don’t know Black, he’s one of a group of improv/sketch/comedy people who’ve been involved in a multitude of projects from The State to Wet Hot American Summer to Reno 911. I hadn’t put my finger on the guy as that guy until recently, and I’m only now starting to appreciate how greatly influential his brand of comedy has been on me for most of my life.

And My Custom Van is, indeed, fun to read while you’re pooping. (Also when you’re not!) As with any anthology or collection, there’s a few clunkers–”I Have An Indomitable Spirit” just sort of wanders all over the place–but the good essays are so good that they more than compensate for the less-amazing ones. “Taco Party” and especially “Using the Socratic Method to Determine What It Would Take for Me to Voluntarily Eat Dog Shit for the Rest of My Life” are brilliant pieces of comedy that I had to put down because I thought I was going to choke on my laughter. It’s now entered my “compulsively loan out to friends and family” pile.

The Brief History of the Dead is a complete about-face from My Custom Van. It’s a fiction about two worlds: the world of the living, and the limbo “City” that the dead reside in while there are still people alive who remember them. As the living world empties out due to a horrible new plague, the City likewise empties out until only a scant few remain. There are two leads: Luka Sims, the only newspapermen in the City, and Laura Byrd, a still-living woman marooned on an arctic expedition. People who know me know this is basically exactly the kind of thing I go for, and the peculiar choice of the definite article The in the title–as in The Brief History of the Dead, not A Brief History of the Dead–only piqued my interest further.

I’m only a few chapters in, but this is riveting stuff. Brockmeier’s prose is cool yet lush, and his ability to render this fantastical City so effortlessly is a testament to his skill. I’m still too early in the book to guess where exactly he’s going with this (though I have some theories), and definitely too early to tell if he can pull it off, but so far I’m glad I picked it up.

Anna

The Red NecklaceI finished The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest earlier this month, and after being immersed in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy I was having difficulty finding something to read that captured my interest. I settled on Sally Gardner’s swashbuckling historical young adult novel The Red Necklace. Set in the time of the French revolution, the necklace in the title of the book refers to a mysterious piece of jewelry, but it also can stand for the red line that appears when someone’s throat is cut. I’m only around a third of the way into the book so far but I’m finding it very entertaining. Yann Margoza is a Gypsy boy of unknown parentage who makes his living assisting a magician and a dwarf in a magic show that features an intricate automaton. Sido is the daughter of an aristocrat who enjoys looking over his shoe buckle collection while remaining utterly oblivious to the coming revolution. When the villainous Count Kalliovski kills Yann’s magician benefactor and demands Sido’s hand in marriage to settle her father’s debts, the unlikely duo get swept up plenty of historical intrigue against a backdrop of civic unrest. Gardner’s attention to detail makes The Red Necklace entertaining, as the excessive habits of Sido’s father are cataloged while Yann finds a new family in the form of Sido’s long-lost relatives in London.

Benjamin

The Four Fingers of DeathI think it was, hm, two weeks ago?  I was in the bookstore and suddenly saw the new Rick Moody book, The Four Fingers Of Death, which I believe had just come out that day.  I was excited for several reasons immediately, all at once.  First of all, there was a new Rick Moody book that I had had no idea was even coming out.  The last book I’d read of his was The Diviners, which was a great read, and I’ve been a general fan of his for quote a long time.  (Bonus Points for anyone who remembers the comic he wrote with Steve Dillon doing the art that ran in Details.)  Secondly, the cover just knocked my socks onto their asses.  It’s so good that you almost never want to even consider eBooks again.  It’s so good that I actually leave the dust jacket on when I carry it around on my commute.  It’s really really sharp, in other words.

The book itself, right. Well, it starts off a little bumpy for the first few pages.  Long time Moody readers will be instantly surprised by the extraordinarily florid first person narration, a big departure from Moody’s usual prose.  But after a few pages, it clicks, and it eases into a really compelling read.  It’s his take on futurism and sci-fi, but undercut with the usual melancholy and quiet beauty.  So far, a really fantastic read.

In a World for August, 2010

In A World... for August

As summer winds down to August, all those movies that studios either couldn’t make sense of or otherwise couldn’t cut it get unleashed on the public. Consequently August is a kind of limbo; most of the releases have the hallmark of a blockbuster but aren’t quite “award season” material. They’re somewhere in between. As with February, some serious gems can slip in under the radar. But there’s a lot of chaff to get through to find that wheat.

Bureau Chiefs Dorian Wright and Ken Lowery take a look at the upcoming August releases and find it a pretty schizophrenic bunch.

AUGUST 6

The Other Guys
"I think we go right." "No, we go left."

The Other Guys

KL: I tend to run real hot or cold on Adam McKay as a writer and director. I think Anchorman is possibly the strongest comedy he or Will Ferrell has ever done, but everything after that—at least the stuff produced for the big screen and not Funny or Die—has been real hit or miss. Talladega Nights is amusing but I can take it or leave it, and even after my opinion of Step Brothers improved, I feel the same way.

This could be different. I think Mark Wahlberg is actually pretty solid as a comedic actor, and Will Ferrell doing the whitebread thing also has some mileage to it. I like the gags that poke at buddy-cop-action-movie conceits, but self-awareness aside, this does sorta seem like yet another melding of comedy with insane action to double-dip on your audiences, a la Knight and Day, Date Night, et cetera. Pretty on the fence here.

DW: I usually like Mark Wahlberg too, though as you say, more as a comedic actor. When he’s trying to do a serious role I can’t help but think “take your shirt off already and give the audience what they want.” Ferrell I can’t make up my mind whether I’m done with his films or not. I enjoyed them, but then he entered that long stretch where it felt like he was making the same movie over and over. This seems different, at least to some degree, from his usual schtick, so I’m willing to give it a shot. Mostly because, apart from anything else, I like the conceit here. I like the idea of two guys trying to live up to the action-movie hero-cop expectations with two living embodiments of that archetype standing in their way. I may be setting myself up for disappointment, as a premise like that so rarely seems to live up to its promise, but we’ll see.

Step Up 3D
Ripped from the headlines!

Step Up 3D

DW: It’s kind of cute that the producers of these films think that the plot actually matters. People don’t watch these films for the stories, they watch them for the visuals. The stories are just a necessary evil to bridge dance scenes. Looking at this, I’m starting to get the idea that, this time, the creators realize that, as there’s really no indication of any kind of plot other than the apparently obligatory “lovers separated by class” story.

I’m not honestly interested enough in the genre to want to see the film, but I do find myself curious at the niche they’re filling. These are big, spectacle, event-style films, but they’re not CGI-fests, all the visuals are just things that humans can do. I don’t want to say that movies in this genre are the feminine equivalent of your summer sci-fi film, but I’m leaning towards that as being a component.

The other thing that strikes me about this film is the use of color and light. The last film I can think of that actually used color and light as elements of “world-building” the way this does was Speed Racer. Which just brings me back to thinking about the market films like this are trying to tap.

KL: The thing about 3D the first time they tried it is that it belonged at least as much to trashy fare as it did to spectacles. So I think this, in a weird sort of way, actually works; it’s a lowest common denominator kind of movie but it actually displays real human skill, versus, as you point out, CGI wizardry. 3D glasses make my eyes hurt and I’m allergic to jacked-up ticket prices, but I’d be more inclined to see this over the half-dozen shovelware 3D “epic” kids movies that’re coming out this year.

AUGUST 13

The Expendables
"No one told Couture we'd be doing berets?"

The Expendables
KL: Uh, hm. I have an unironic love for movies like Predator, The Last Action Hero, Demolition Man, and even, on a good day, Commando. They’re big hyper-masculine relics of the ‘80s for the most part, some with greater awareness of what they are than others, but they’re fun movies. And I can get behind the macho charisma of most of this cast.

I’d feel better if Stallone weren’t such a klutzy writer and director. Rocky Balboa met and exceeded the daily FDA recommended intake of schmaltz and Rambo was problematic. (OK, another one: I did like Cliffhanger.) The amount of pleasure I can get out of The Expendables depends entirely on whether it wants to be fun badass or “cool” badass. Early on in the movie’s publicity campaign I was optimistic. Now, I’m a lot less so.

DW: Every time I’ve seen one of these trailers play out here, there’s been a big cheer from the audience every time one of these meaty ’80s action guys appears on screen for the first time. And then Schwarzenegger appears and the groans are deafening. Not that I expect the political mood of coastal Californians to be a huge factor in the final box office, but I thought it was interesting.

I suspect that nostalgia factor of this will give it decent sales and word of mouth, but I can’t help but feel that, as a genre, action movies have really moved on from the time when most of these guys were in their hey-day. The inclusion of Jet Li and Jason Statham seems like an acknowledgement of that, as they are lithe, athletic guys who actually give violence a sort of poeticism, not slabs of meat spouting one-liners.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World
Huggable or punchable? U DECIDE

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

KL: I’m going to be real with you: I tried to read the first volume of Scott Pilgrim on three separate occasions and it never took. I didn’t find Scott cute or relatable; I found him immature and kind of gross. (Now I think I “get” it a bit more; in the age of relentless status updates, everyone tries—humorously or not—to recast the most mundane aspects of their lives as something epic.)

But I like these trailers. Mostly because (as I’ve said elsewhere) I have a craving for novelty in big movie releases, a craving that sometimes takes me into unhealthy spaces. Mostly I’m just glad that Edgar Wright decided not to water anything down and just straight-up did fucking Scott Pilgrim right there on the big screen. I think that takes more guts than just doing an animated feature, and I respect guts.

DW: I’m not the target audience for this. I read a few pages of the original graphic novel when it was released and very quickly came to the realization that it was “not for me.” The fans of the series love it in an extremely vocal way, and more power to them (though please stop trying to convince me that my lack of interest is a sign of moral retardation on my part), but more nuanced reviewers have left me with the impression that, as a body of work, it is masterful at giving its target audience exactly what they want, to the point that we can probably go ahead and call it “pandering,” and that I would find the work extremely problematic.

Coupled with my growing weariness with Edgar Wright and his work and the utter, visceral, irrational loathing I feel for Michael Cera whenever I see his image, it’s safe to say that I don’t have high expectations for the two of them teaming up to present a film version of the comics.

And then I actually sit down and watch the trailer, and yeah, that’s definitely an Edgar Wright adaptation of Scott Pilgrim comics with Michael Cera.

Eat Pray Love
Their two faces are definitely not Photoshopped in, despite how it looks.

Eat, Pray, Love

DW: I usually find myself exasperated with films like this. It’s aspirational affirmation for women, and the only thing that immediately differentiates it from things like Sex and the City is that it’s not materialistic. It does, though, perpetuate this idea that “the other” is more in tune with spirituality or nature or whatever the protagonist feels is unbalanced in her life than her own culture is. I find that really problematic, not to mention condescending in its attitude towards other cultures. Films like this don’t value those cultures on their own merits, but for their ability to “fix” Americans and their problems. It aggravates me.

KL: My doctor no longer allows me to watch Julia Roberts movies (he keeps talking about something called a “rage coma”), so I won’t be heading into the theaters for this one. I can say my wife found the book to be as uninspiring and aggravating as you feel this movie will be, so!

Tales from Earthsea
"No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you."

Tales from Earthsea

DW: The Studio Ghibli films are some of the most gorgeous animated films produced. You just have to pretend not to notice that most of them follow a pretty predictable formula. And that you haven’t noticed that their last couple of films haven’t been very good. It’s an adaptation, though the studio isn’t particularly known for the faithfulness of their adaptations, but maybe having the spine of someone else’s plot will help on the story aspects. And it’s an explicit fantasy film, which I tend to think is the studio’s strong suit, but that’s still no guarantee of a better result.

But it is so very pretty, and a fantasy world that’s visually based on native South American cultures is novel enough that I’m going to want to see it anyway.

I do find myself wondering at the shortness of the trailer and its narrated nature. We know the film is going to be dubbed for the theatrical release, but adopting the usual markers of “serious foreign film” in the trailers makes me wonder how they’re pitching the marketing money.

KL: Oh man, a world where humans and dragons were one! I have definitely not seen that in at least two months!

OK, maybe that was unfair. But Dorian, you put your finger on a couple things that bothered me that I was unable to name. For one, the quality of Ghibli pictures—or perhaps it’s just my interest level—has waned precariously ever since Spirited Away. (Which I quite enjoyed.) The last one I saw, Ponyo, I saw on assignment. It was very pretty but it was definitely not for adults. So I feel like my opinion on that movie would be a moot point.

I don’t know why this trailer is narrated, but Disney has had kind of a heavy hand in trailer editing lately. The Princess and the Frog’s trailer spent the first half of it telling us how fucking awesome and epic and historical and monumental this new movie was going to be, and I suppose they’re doing the same thing here. Which is weird, as I see a list of dubbed voice actors right there under the trailer. Why not just let their dialogue tell the story?

AUGUST 20

Piranha 3D
She won't even make eye contact, which is PRETTY RUDE.

Pirhana 3D

DW: Film icons slumming! Unnecessary use of an obnoxious gimmick! Disrespectful teens bearing a suspicious resemblance to the film’s market getting killed in nasty and inventive ways! On the one hand, I kind of admire the filmmakers for hewing so close to the ’80s horror cheapie formula. On the other, it’s the ’80s horror cheapie formula and they want us to pay $12 to see it, knowing full well that there are dozens of these things available on streaming services like Netflix.

Every once in awhile, when I’m bored, I’ll make notes on themes in horror films, and why I think they work or don’t. Generally, I find I’m pretty down on the “nature gone wrong” films. I just don’t find animals, even prehistoric or mutant animals, to have quite the gravitas as a supernatural or human “monster” has. It’s the lack of motive or direction, I think. It’s hard to find a fish doing what a fish does all that terrifying. Film-makers have to be very careful when using animals as monsters to avoid camp, or else they have to just embrace it. Because, frankly, animals as monsters almost always come off a bit silly.

Which is a long and indirect way of saying that, if this turns out to embrace the camp, it might be worth a rental, or at least a download via a streaming service. If not, well…at least we’ve got 2025’s Piranha 4D to look forward to.

KL: Like I said above, 3D belongs to trash cinema at least as much as it belongs to any other kind, so I’m glad stuff like this is happening.

However, this is most definitely trash cinema, and I should be honest here: I’ve never had much of an “ironic appreciation” gene. I do not like things because they are terrible; if a thing is terrible, I just think it’s terrible. At the least, I need a heavy filter—think Mystery Science Theater 3000—to get through that stuff. Unless Piranha 3D is unusually well done—and I do not think the phrase “unusually well done” has been applied to any made-for-3D movie since Coraline—I will spend my $12 on a good meal.

Lottery Ticket
That is indeed a lottery ticket.

Lottery Ticket

KL: So that is definitely the entire movie outlined in the trailer, right there. Bully, mentor, wacky sidekick friend, gold digger, friend who should be the real love interest… I hit BINGO about halfway through.

I’m sure it’ll be OK in a forgettable way. And maybe it’s Idiocracy or Everybody Hates Chris, but I’m going to laugh any time Terry Crews is on screen. Still, the only mystery here is what ultimately happens with the money… and the inspirational friend-who-should-be-the-love-interest spells that out, too. Oh well.

DW: Yeah, as you say, the trailer spells out pretty much every detail of the film, including what looks to be the resolution, a tactic which I always suspect is a sign of a film that doesn’t have much in the way of plot or story to go on. But then, neither of us exactly in the target market for this film, so I’m willing to concede that the intended audience may be getting more out of it than I might be.

AUGUST 27

The Last Exorcism
That dress IS horrifying.

The Last Exorcism

KL: The Exorcist casts such a long shadow over the horror genre that any movie about demonic possession will inevitably be viewed through its prism. The Last Exorcism seems aware of that, and adds a few nice twists: the modern conceit of being a documentary or “found footage” a la Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity, along with some of that spooky Southern flavor that gives good horror a nice tang. Could be good; exorcism movies have a special hold over me, for reasons this trailer make explicit: an innocent person wholly subsumed by evil they did not earn or deserve.

Someone smarter and better-versed than me: who are Huck Botko, Andrew Gurland and Daniel Stamm? They’re right there on the promotional material as if they’re a big deal, but I’ve never heard of anything they’ve done.

DW: As near as I can tell, the gentlemen you ask about have done…not very much, and nothing very notable.

I don’t like the faux-documentary approach to horror films at all. I’ve seen too many where that approach was used to cover the lack of a budget or because someone thought shaky cameras pointed at something in the darkness is scary in and of itself. And it feels like we’ve had a LOT of exorcism themed horror films in the last few years, as well. I don’t think the sub-genre is at the tipping point yet where the devil has stopped being scary, but it feels to me that ultimate evil is starting to be in as much danger of over-use and over-exposure as vampires and zombies are now.

In other words, I’m pretty confident that I can skip this one and not feel like I’m missing anything.

Centurion
You can tell it's the land of the Celts because everything's teal.

Centurion

DW: I’ve yet to be impressed with anything that I’ve seen from Neil Marshall. It just feels a little too calculated to me, I suppose. There’s nothing specific, just something vague there that I find off-putting.

Which is a shame, because otherwise I might find myself interested in a Romans vs. Celts action movie. There are hints here of something a little more ambitious going on, in a political metaphor sort of way, but it’s not clear if Marshall is attempting to use Rome’s occupation of Britain as a metaphor for any other world powers occupying another country or if he’s using the suggestion of corruption within the Roman war-machine as, well, a metaphor for corruption in a contemporary war-machine. Or maybe none of that is actually in the film and it’s just really skillful editing on the part of the people who put together the trailer in an attempt to make the film look deeper than it might actually be.

KL: I loved, loved, loved Doomsday, because it was a big crazy joke and a mash-up of everything from John Carpenter’s Escape movies to Lord of the Rings. Best of all, the execution lived up to the ambition; it was just entertaining as hell, and for me (and precious few others, I’ll admit), it totally worked.

But no, I don’t think he’s a terribly deep filmmaker. Not that that’s a problem for me. This looks in some ways just as bananas as Doomsday; Ukranian actress/model Olga Kurylenko as a badass Celt manhunter? Sure, why not!

This is also a period that’s woefully neglected in modern filmmaking; I suppose everyone saw Gladiator and thought anything that had to do with Romans had to be epic, Best Picture-baiting material. Good on Marshall for finding the fun, brutal potential.

Takers
"Looks like someone didn't get the memo about charcoal suit day!"

Takers

KL: There is not an original thought to be found in the movie’s premise (totes badass bank robber crew takes on One Last Job; will it be their last?) and despite liking Idris Elba, Paul Walker and Zoe Saldana, the presence of Hayden Christensen in just about anything that isn’t Shattered Glass is a turd in the punch bowl. The parkour stuff looks neat, at least.

I don’t know where my line is when it comes to depicting hyper-competence on the big screen. I can really get behind how guys like David Mamet and Michael Mann show it; I could watch Spartan and Heat forever. But when you throw in that music video gloss and the impossible stunt work, my interest meter goes from green to zero like that. Pass.

DW: Actually, I take back my earlier comments. I’d rather watch ’80s meatheads spew one-liners than something as cold and slick and lifeless as this. As “by the numbers” as those ’80s action films were, this is the modern equivalent of an action movie that is just checking off al the required plot and stunt elements and assembling them into something that the studio hopes is viewable. Or, if not viewable, at least has a good couple of days of box office before word of mouth kills it.

Ken vs. Salt

Salt

Give the advertising campaign credit: “Who is Salt?” isn’t just a marketing tagline, but the question you’ll find yourself asking over and over as Salt unreels before you. At first Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) appears to be a CIA agent with a loving husband and a normal life, but it isn’t long before she’s crossing and double-crossing people without explaining to anyone, least of all the audience, why she’s doing what she’s doing.

And on paper, that’s kind of a nifty idea. Salt is undeniably the protagonist of the movie; we follow her almost exclusively through her many daring escapes, assaults and flashbacks. We see that she is whoever she needs to be in a given moment, which can be anything from a charming lady to a badass martial artist. But we never know where she stands. Is she hero, or villain?

The points of contention: Salt is on her way home to celebrate her anniversary with her husband when an ex-Russian spy comes in claiming that a rogue Russian intelligence agent wants to reignite the Cold War with a countless host of sleeper agents planted all throughout the United States. Who’s going to kick it off? Why, none other than Evelyn Salt, who’ll light the fire by assassinating the Russian president in New York City. This comes as something of a surprise to Evelyn, but her peers take it seriously enough to force Evelyn to flee. Only her boss (Liev Schreiber) still believes she is who she says she is.

From there Salt takes some genuinely surprising, topsy-turvy turns that you leave you genuinely questioning who it is Evelyn works for and who, exactly, you should be rooting for. I’m not convinced this works as the audience’s sole perspective for an entire movie, and Salt does not make the case well; it so thoroughly undermines Evelyn’s identity—already pretty scant due to a script that is 80% chase sequences—that it is, in fact, impossible to care about what happens to anyone. Jolie’s ability to switch from house cat to tiger in a manner of seconds is the only thing that keeps Salt from simply floating away into the ether.

Not that I didn’t enjoy the movie’s baser pleasures. For all her prestigious star power, I think Jolie is most at home in action roles. There’s something visceral about her presence; when she’s kicking someone’s ass you feel the sheer physicality of it. She stalks through her scenes with true menace and frightening competence.

Director Phillip Noyce occasionally succumbs to the shaky-cam chaos that you see in a lot of spy movies these days, but occasionally he remembers to pull back and show us what’s going on. Was it Mamet who said that audiences enjoy watching competent people do things well? That’s a sentiment that I think applies to action directors as much or moreso than anyone else. Don’t confuse the audience; take the chance to luxuriate in the proficiency and coolness of all those martial arts consultants, all that stunt work, and all those special effects. Why spend all that money and all that time if you’re going to obscure most of it?

In short, give people the show.

Salt mostly does. It’s a pretty movie when it remembers to be, its action is entertaining and occasionally inventive. It also contains a few genuine surprises, not least of which is the moral ambivalence of its lead. But there is clumsiness on display; the husband-in-peril thread is so thin as to be transparent and the opening info-dump given by the Russian spy was, oh, a little embarrassing. Salt’s stakes are good—and refreshingly old-school in a James Bond kind of way—and Jolie makes a great dramatic action lead. It’s a pity, then, that the movie’s central premise is also its downfall.

P.S. “Evelyn Salt” is a dumb name for a character.

Ken vs. Inception

Inception

Christopher Nolan’s characters live in a world of ideas. They’re trapped by them, enslaved by them, dominated by them and ruled by them. They are fallible people who externalize every lash on their souls; their gestures change the world and they know it, but they know also that they will never live up to the abstract ideals they forever chase or evade. They are haunted by dreams dashed, lost, or inadequately conceived.

Therefore it seems predestined that Nolan would eventually tap Leonardo DiCaprio to play one of his leads. DiCaprio has built his career around playing fiercely intelligent men with deeply compromised mental integrity who chase oblivion to find peace. He does so again in Inception, which plays as a striking companion piece to this year’s other DiCaprio head trip, Shutter Island.

It’s good that DiCaprio is such a natural at this sort of thing, and better still that Nolan’s cast—so uniformly strong that any quarter of them could headline a great movie—gives so strong an impression of character and intent. On paper, these people are ciphers. See the movie and ask yourself: what do we really know about Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s staid sidekick, or Ellen Page’s honest and talented dream architect? The answer is nothing more than I just told you. The roles are simply embodied, and the actors’ charisma does the rest. It’s too bad, really, that in creating his most idea-driven movie, Christopher Nolan has left his characters behind.

But what ideas they are. DiCaprio plays Cobb, leader of a team of people who are able to enter a person’s mind via their dreams in order to steal valuable data. They call it extraction, but “they” also talk about a much more dangerous maneuver: inception, or the introduction of an alien idea into someone’s mind. It’s this latter they’re hired to do by an energy mogul (Ken Watanabe) who wants to stop the son of his chief rival (Cillian Murphy) from monopolizing the field worldwide once the rival (Pete Postlethwaite) dies, which should be any day now. Most of the movie is taken up with the business of Cobb recruiting his team and then delving into his target’s mind three layers deep: a dream within a dream within a dream, and a flirtation with delving even deeper into the chaotic and bottomless subconscious. Complicating the matter is that Cobb can’t seem to keep a guilt-driven projection of his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) from popping up and sabotaging his work. And she’s getting more dangerous all the time.

So much of Inception is spent in surreal atmospheres with flexible rules and plenty of paradoxes. If I’m being honest, this—more than the good cast and intriguing premise—is why I wanted to see the movie so much. Mainstream filmmaking has been “safe” for as long as it’s existed, but the past few years especially it seems that formula, contrivance, and dim versions of the high concept have ruled every major release of every weekend. Most filmmakers (and consequently most moviegoers) forget that in movies, you can do and show anything.

Some remember, sometimes, and you get the occasional glorious success (300, Dark City, most of Pixar’s catalogue) or brilliant failure (Speed Racer, Sin City). The filmmakers remember that the empty soundstage and the green screen are canvases, and that there aren’t—or shouldn’t be—any fetters between their conception of the story and its execution.

All of which is a high-falutin’ way to say that every now and then, a filmmaker decides to show us things we’ve never seen before and can never see in any other medium. By this gauge Inception is an unqualified triumph. It is quite simply an amazing thing to behold; the glimpses you’ve seen in trailers only hint at the construction of interlocking chains of logic, consequence and action that Nolan has constructed, even if most of it is washed in that teal light filmmakers are so fond of, and so much of the dialogue is given over to simply explaining what is happening. There is one extended action sequence that takes place on three levels of consciousness, one affecting the other which affects still yet another. I guarantee you have never seen anything like it before.

Nolan’s preoccupation with city spaces dominates, as well. Cities tend to be great lurking beasts in his movies, as much a character as a setting, but never more so than here; each real-world city is introduced with establishing shots that show building after building eating up the horizon, and almost every dream construct we see is some spin on a city. In The Dark Knight, Gotham City was an endless maze for human rats to play in. In Inception, the rats build and embrace the maze themselves: for instance, in the decades spent in the dreamspace of his own subconscious, Cobb and his wife built miles of geometric cityspace and little to no wildlife. I can’t tell if this is a statement of some kind, or merely Nolan unintentionally revealing something about himself. Either way, I sympathize with his fascination.

Among all that awe, it came as a surprise to me that the more intimate moments with Cobb and Mal are so affecting. More than that, they’re frightening: Cobb’s head is a haunted place, and Ariadne’s few forays into his dreamscape feel more dangerous than any other peril presented in the movie. I felt the peril there, in a quiet and ransacked hotel room, far more than I did in some of the later action sequences. I wish we could have spent more time there.

If I have a complaint about Inception it is that it is so very plot-heavy, and its central premise for getting to the meat of it—the dream-diving—is loaded down with specialized language and the mechanics of the thing that when Ariadne at one point asks in exasperation, “whose subconscious are we diving into?” the audience laughed in recognition. There’s enough jargon here to populate a David Mamet film, and like a Mamet film, you have to pay close attention if you don’t want to get left behind.

In terms of coherence, forward motion and characterization, Inception is in many ways a step down from The Dark Knight. In terms of virtuosity, it has no modern peer: here is, quite simply, an engine built to show you wonders. Amidst the endless array of explanations and exposition, Christopher Nolan has built a movie that is impossible not to look at.

The Uncrossable Divide Between Critic and Audience

It’s true that the only thing outpacing articles about the death of film criticism these days are articles about the articles about the death of film criticism. In fact, we’ve now reached the third stage of meta-commentary: articles about the articles about the articles about the death of film criticism. I suppose this counts for the latter, which is fitting. I had something to say in the first wave, too.

That’s to be expected. Critics are by their nature prone to analysis and exposition, and if they’ve got the pulpit, by God, why not use it? (Again, here I am doing that same thing.) What’s odd in all this discussion about the relationship between critics and audience—whether there is one, for instance, and what its general health might be—is that no one is bringing up the very real differences between critics and their perceived charges. I don’t claim to be an expert on film criticism—I think the high watermark of my career might be called “semi-professional”—but I’ve been writing about movies for twelve years and I’ve been reading other critics for a lot longer.

Without further ado:

The Blockbuster Conundrum

There’s general agreement that a certain level of movie is “critic-proof,” that is, the hype is so great that no level of bad reviews will sink it, and so critics need not even apply. There’s some truth to this; plenty of crap makes its nut back no matter what anyone says about it.

Some studios and distributors have taken the “critic-proof” designation as a badge of honor, or as justification for not screening an ever-increasing number of movies in advance. Why bother letting critics get a word in edge-wise? The belief is that the bad buzz about not having a screening is not as bad as the potential drubbing a film might get on Friday morning.

They’re dead wrong and that kind of behavior just reinforces the notion that there is no such thing as a critic-proof movie, but hey, that’s studio logic for you.

But it’s true that some movies are just going to make a ton of money no matter what anyone says. It’s also true that critics, ideally, do not care; as must so often be pointed out, the critic is not in the business of echoing the general public’s opinion of a blockbuster. The critic is only in the business of telling you what they thought about a movie.

Critics, Not Entertainment Journalists

“Entertainment journalism” is and always will be a dirty business, but these days it seems particularly fascinated with reporting box office predictions and returns, per-screen averages and demographic trends as if anyone but studios, stakeholders and theater owners should give a damn.

Used to be, when a studio wanted to brag about their hot new movie’s three-day pull or arbitrary box office record, it’d take a full page ad out in Variety; nowadays every major newspaper in the country breathlessly reports that information for them, free of charge. Why? Because that crap’s easy; it’s just math and PR spin. The dots are easy to connect, and that can be a merciful thing for a writer on deadline. But it’s not criticism, and too many people are conflating the two.

The second draw of entertainment journalism, gossip, is equally lumped in with criticism and equally invalid. Unless the who’s-fucking-who question directly affects what goes up on the screen, it simply does not matter.

Same with box office. I only care about box office insofar as it allows creators and artists I like to continue doing what they do. That should be the end of it.

It’s Not About Whether You Agree With Them

To mangle a maxim from favorite movie critic and blogger Jim Emerson, whether or not you agree with a critic should be the least important thing about the review. It’s their arguments that should engage you and generate the conversation or debate, and being objectively “right” (and more importantly to the Internet, getting the other person to say that you are) should be irrelevant.

Way, way too often I have seen people (often nerds of the comic book/sci-fi fan variety) take personal offense when I express distaste (or, worse, indifference) to a movie they love; to them, my not liking their treasure is some kind of personal affront, as if my divergent reaction challenges their grip on the world. Often they assume I just didn’t get it or that there is something objectively wrong with me that they can fix with an endless barrage of opinions presented as objective fact.

They are wrong. I assure you, friends: no matter what political discourse tells you, it is possible for two intelligent people to agree to disagree and still be respectful to one another. In fact, it makes life way more fun and challenging. Enjoy the unique perspective and witty writing; the “consumer’s guide” aspect of criticism is just one part of a greater whole.

The Monotony Of It All

Your average movie-goer may go to the theater only once a month or, given ticket prices, less. So when they take a trip to the movie theater it’s more of an “event,” and the escapism of the thing counts as enough of a novelty to make even a mediocre movie into an enjoyable experience.

A critic lives a different life. It’s likely that they run movies on a constant stream at home, and professional critics may see anywhere from one to five screenings a week. This is or can be—prepare your tiniest violin—deadly dull work, and believe me when I say it is work. That fun action/rom-com movie you caught this summer may be your first excursion into that genre, but it was the critic’s third one this month. Do you see why they might be a little harsher than you toward that “harmless” bit of fluff?

This isn’t a call for pity, by the way. Writing about movies is rad. But seeing movies as often as critics do makes plain how very repetitive, formulaic, and safe the majority of them are. You can only take so much of that before you lash out… because it’s easy to forget that every movie, even the most brain-dead example of its genre, is someone’s first time . To you it’s old hat. To them it’s a revelation. I sometimes suspect this is the greatest disconnect between critics and general audiences.

The Love of the Exotic

In escaping the banal, critics often embrace the strange. Sometimes, I love a movie just because it tried something different. A lot of critics do this. I may blow my love for something a little out of proportion (hello Speed Racer), but by God those people were trying. When 75% of the stuff I watch has been beaten into shapelessness by the Formula Hammer, novelty—or any sign of a creative pulse at all—can go a long way.

This is basically my explanation for liking Silent Hill, by the way. I get that, objectively speaking, it’s not terribly well made. But it’s just so damned weird that I can’t help but admire it. “I can’t believe a movie like that got made” is a phrase I often use with a dose of admiration. For this reason, a genuinely awful movie experience is often preferable to yet another dull, uninspiring one.

Not That We Don’t Miss the Mark
Then again, seeing an endless barrage of template-stamped formula can numb even the savviest critic’s brain to something new and wonderful. When you see a lot of same-old-same-old, the tendency to pigeonhole everything that plays in front of you becomes overwhelming and, most insidiously of all, invisible.

So when some exotic new blend of a movie plays and proves itself hard to categorize, it’s too easy to label it a misfire or a half-baked stab at one of the genres or styles it sort of resembles. This happens in every genre of criticism; the annals of history are replete with short-sighted derisions of everything from Star Wars to the Beatles’ White Album.

“Turn Your Brain Off”
I have been told many times that I would have enjoyed a movie if I just “turned my brain off.” To be blunt, this drives me bonkers for a number of reasons, but I’ll try to stick to the top two.

The first point should be self-evident: as a critic I can’t “turn my brain off”; the job would not exist if I did. Unlike the general audience, I cannot forget everything I saw the second the lights come up. And unlike the general audience, I cannot simply let a movie pass in front of my eyes without trying to engage it on an intellectual level. I must chew on this meal, no matter how meager, and then turn around and produce a coherent argument about its merits or lack thereof. If a movie has nothing to offer on an intellectual level, well… that ain’t my fault.

Second, it’s pretty damn insulting to be told I should enjoy something because it’s in front of me and is not actively terrible. It’s also infuriating that people let themselves be talked down to like this by moviemakers, and in fact will defend a studio’s right to do so. Entertainment doesn’t have to be empty calories, nor does it have to be Lars Von Trier; I contend that a movie can be both entertaining and worthwhile. We all have limited time on this Earth, and it completely baffles me that we’d ever settle for less.

We Don’t Enjoy Hating On Stuff…

As explained above, it can be kind of a drag to watch a few relentlessly mediocre and interchangeable movies a week, knowing that you’re going to have to write a review about them that isn’t just the word “Eh” copied-and-pasted 700 times. It can be a hell of a lot worse with a genuinely terrible movie, and if the assignment didn’t exist, don’t you think I’d rather just have my two hours back?

I have lashed out, sure. I trashed Across the Universe and hated on Transformers 2 quite a bit, but those were purgative experiences; the only defense I have against those genuinely awful movies was to fire back with both barrels. But I did not enjoy watching those movies, and I did not enjoy shitting on them. The only pleasure I can take from the experience is that, at least in my opinion, I articulated my position well.

…Except When We Do
Witness the dog pile on Sex and the City 2. What can I say; there are members of the profession who like a good blood sport as much as anyone else. Personally I find them embarrassing.

And finally, to my peers and heroes,

Critics Care Way More About Armond White Than You Do
It’s just a thing. Sorry.

So Do We “Need” Critics?
A lot of critics, facing what looks like professional extinction, certainly think so. But do I think we need them?

As I said in my earlier article, “need” is a strong word. If there’s a “need” here, it’s for a critic to do what he does; I know that I will continue to write about movies no matter how obscure my audience, because I simply cannot not write about movies. It’s a compulsion, and I’m glad I’ve got just enough skill to get it out of my head in a (hopefully) productive fashion.

So no, I don’t think we “need” critics.

But I do think critics help us. At their best, critics ask an audience to take a greater appreciation for what they spend their time with, which in turn makes those experiences more enriching and worthwhile. They can point you to new things you might have otherwise missed, or help you greater appreciate something you already saw and enjoyed.

You may agree with a critic or not, but if they get you to think about your opinion—rather than just calcify it—then they’ve done their job. Critics, at their most basic and best, will for a moment get you to feel what he or she felt when taking in a cultural experience shared by many. Empathy, in other words. And that’s never not a good thing.

Ken vs. Cyrus

Hijinx!

John’s got a problem: ever since his wife left him seven years ago, his life has been one long, slow spiral into the gutter. He’s functional and continues to work, but that’s about all that can be said for him. So when his ex (Catherine Keener, whose presence always improves a movie’s charisma) invites him to her engagement party with the stated purpose of meeting women, he accepts. Grudgingly. His pick-up technique involves long, intense spiels about the hopelessness of his life and how finding someone to connect with may be the only thing that can save him. If there’s one thing John (played by John C. Reilly) is incapable of doing, it’s filtering his feelings.

Which is what draws Molly (Marisa Tomei) to John, played with beautiful restraint by John C. Reilly. They hit it off at the party despite his drunken state and kick off one of those intense left-field romances where everything clicks and you want to spend every waking moment with this wonderful new stranger in your life. The catch? Molly never stays the night, and is reluctant to share anything about her life.

The reason is Cyrus (Jonah Hill), her 21-year-old son, who still lives at home and seems perfectly content to spend the rest of his life with his mother. If sexless incest is a thing, then that’s what Molly and Cyrus have: a relationship through which they try to fulfill all or most of their emotional needs without much contact with the outside world. When John enters theirs, Cyrus feels threatened, and a minor showdown of epic proportions begins.

Cyrus treads a fine line for a comedy, wavering between laugh-out-loud duels between Cyrus and John and sincerely sweet soul-baring moments. In lesser hands this would be tiresome material, and I could very well see myself twiddling my thumbs through those soul-baring moments to get to the yuks. But lo, everyone is just so gosh darn likable and authentic that I ended up caring about them. It’s not so much that I know these people. It’s just that I believe them.

A lot of that’s to do with Reilly and Hill, whose duel for Molly’s affections so often takes the slow-burning path over the explosive one. Reilly is an immensely talented performer, able to convey so much while coming off as nothing more than a likable schlub. I was reminded of his performance in The Promotion, a quiet little comedy about quiet little men whose customer-service-uber-alles mentalities were the only things keeping smiles on their faces while they hurtled toward unavoidable confrontation. Reilly frequently takes absurdist comedic roles, but the man has a gift for the low key. One he doesn’t explore often enough.

He’s matched by Hill, who speaks with great kindness and politeness throughout the movie’s first half … and who clearly doesn’t mean a word of it. His Cyrus is clearly smart and mature, but there’s something off about him all the same: His congeniality masks a sinister intelligence and mountains of insecurity. Tomei has less to do with her part, but what she does give—a warm and genuinely loving presence stunted by years of emotional isolation with her son—she does effortlessly.

Cyrus really is a very simple movie, completely beholden to relationship dynamics both loud and subtle. There are perhaps ten sets, with only a handful that dominate, and three actors who occupy something like 80% of the running time. But for the heavy reliance on subtle gestures and glances, Cyrus could be a stage play. And a marvelous one at that.

A comment on the digital camera techniques of writer-directors Jay and Mark Duplass. Cyrus is filmed in digital with a pervasive use of snap-zooms to focus on actors, gestures and bits of scenery throughout. This is jarring at first, and seemingly at odds with digital’s main virtue: The purpose of digital is to remove the staginess from film—to remove excess cuts and give an overall more “natural” feel, as if we’re peeking in on actual events. (That sensation is artificial, but hey, moviemaking is about lying in creative new ways.)

So why the snap-zooms? The digital says “slice of life,” the zooms say “hey, check out our camera work!” But after awhile, I got it: each quick-zoom was a re-framing, taking a scene and drawing attention to glances, movements and setting in a scene. I thought of polyptych paintings, or of how some comic book artists draw a full scene and then frame panels throughout it to guide the eye and tell a story within a single shot. It’s a hell of a thing to pull off well, and the Duplass brothers do. In that, Cyrus’s form and function are one.